A Review of Sorry to Bother You (2018)

by Jordan Rock

Here’s the hot take: “Sorry to Bother You” is the most hilarious horror film I’ve seen in years. It’s on Hulu, go and watch it if you want to have a spiteful belly laugh at corporate politics. Are you still here? Okay, let’s dive in.   

If you’re black, and you’ve had a white boss, then you’re familiar with Code-Switching.

For most of us, it starts early. A teacher sends you home with a note for your parents, and they raise an eyebrow because it says, “Crass language” or “Doesn’t speak clearly.”

Bias starts early

Maybe you got sent to an extracurricular “Speech” class that beat a transatlantic (Read: White) accent into you. Then your uppity bourgeoisie English teacher would stop telling you to speak “properly.” You travel outside your hometown and you get people asking about your accent – every other time you speak. You get a job, and your manager has to tell you over and over again that the way you talk is “too aggressive” for customers, or some corporate rep asks you to repeat yourself because they aren’t familiar with “Ebonics.”

You keep hearing that the voice of your hometown is unprofessional and abrasive from people in authority. It starts to sink in that your own culture is unprofessional. Like a core aspect of who you are has no place in business. Over time, you start to associate clear diction and deliberate phrasing and “proper” syntax with professionalism. You internalize the idea that you need to speak like a white person to come off as professional. This is what I refer to as code-switching, and it is in the enforcement of this idea that office politics attempt to colonize you.

So, what does that have to do with “Sorry to Bother You”?

EVERYTHING. Here’s the breakdown. Sorry to Bother You was released in 2018, and it takes place in modern-day Oakland. Written and directed by Boots Riley (writer, musician, activist), the movie stars Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out, Straight Outta Compton) as Cassius “Cash” Green.

Cash is a pretty accurate depiction of me back in 2019: broke, exhausted, and frustrated from having to bust his ass and hustle day and night just to make rent. Every day, Cash drives his busted up car to his new, crappy telemarketing job, and every night, he goes and drinks with his girlfriend, an artist named Detroit played by Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarök, Selma, Creed) and muses about how he wants to escape this life of just scraping by.

As it turns out, he’s pretty trash at telemarketing, opening with a hesitant “Uh, hey, sorry to bother you, but-“ before his customers hang up.

After several failed calls, his co-worker from the next cubicle over gives him some life-changing advice. “You wanna make some money here? Then read your script with a white voice.”

It starts with trying to subdue your drawl

Then speak with clear diction in job interviews, then you blink, and you realize that you no longer sound anything like your parents. It’s like rain on a car’s paint job. It doesn’t do anything at first. But if nothing is done, the water eats at the paint and wears it away over time until spots of rust start to show.

Code-switching is a survival tactic, you see, but you don’t think about it as an invasion into your own personal culture until somebody tells you “Well, you don’t sound black.” It’s subtle, but it eats away at you.

It’s at this point that “Sorry to Bother You” takes a ludicrous turn. Cash’s co-worker gives an example of the “White Voice;” a sample. And it sounds hilariously unnatural. It’s clearly some dude dubbing over this grizzled, laid back co-worker played by Danny Glover (too many roles to mention) in a nasally Ned Flanders-esque, overly familiar tone that instantly got a laugh out of me. It’s so jarring that it leaves you open for the absurdity that’s to come.

 It doesn’t take much practice for Cash to pick up the “White Voice” (dubbed by David Cross from Modern Family). And miraculously, it works like a charm.

People on the other end of the phone line gravitate toward the laid-back, earnest ease in Cash’s affectation, and he instantly starts closing deals left, right, and center. It doesn’t take him long to earn a raise and basically become the star of the sales floor, for what its worth.

What it’s worth doesn’t turn out to be much.

The working conditions and the pay from this job are so poor that the workers form a union led by Cash’s friend Squeeze, played by Steven Yuen (Walking Dead, Voltron: Legendary Defender, Final Space) and stage a floor-wide walkout.

Cash participates in this protest, and later gets called into the manager’s office. He expects to get the axe but is instead offered a promotion so lucrative that it will change his life if he takes it.

What follows is the story of Cash’s rise in the corporate world, and the moral compromises he makes along the way in the pursuit of a “better” life. And all he has to do to keep making money is use that “White Voice.”

 At the start it’s just a ridiculous gimmick, a creepy voice he can use as a party trick at the bar but, over time, the white voice becomes Cash’s voice.

He, and as an extension, we the audience, are barely aware that it’s happening. But Cash starts using the voice when he doesn’t have to, As a joke. Then in casual conversation. Then at all hours during work. It starts popping up when he’s not even trying to use it and acts as a barrier between himself and his friends and family.

As Cash’s life changes, so does his perspective. This movie puts the insidious, colonizing nature of code-switching on full display, and it is the main source of this film’s creeping dread.

That, and as the film goes on, it earns it’s “sci-fi comedy horror” tags. I’m not going to spoil the major twists here but believe me when I say that the climax of “Sorry to Bother You” needs to be seen to be believed.

With all that said, I highly recommend this movie. If you’ve ever had to tone down your accent for work, been told you don’t sound right by someone in authority, or that you “don’t sound black,” you owe it to yourself to check out Sorry to Bother You.

“Sorry to Bother You” is currently available for streaming on Hulu, Vudu and Amazon Prime, and is also purchasable on Youtube and Google Play.

Check out the Trailer:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.